Monday, 20 January 2014

Sexism in tennis

Monday 20 January 2013

When it comes to sport, it seems that, rather than inheriting the athleticism of my father, a personal trainer, in playing it, I have acquired (along with bad skin and bad knees) his signature brand of cynicism and his propensity for abrupt moments of abstraction while watching it.

'Son, I was always proud … that you weren't a short man.'

Dad enjoys spectatorship as much as the next bloke, but he appears simultaneously to hold the whole enterprise in contempt: teams and clubs branding themselves with the names of cities while buying and selling players from all over the world who don't have any real connection to those communities. It's too much like supporting a corporation. I find this sentiment echoed in myself.

How does one pick a team, anyway? If it's not the team of the region where you live, and not a team you grew up supporting, what determines your choice? Is it who's winning the most? Who has the prettiest colours? The best mascot? Your favourite player? My girlfriend's dad supported the Cronulla Sharks for years until he converted to the North Queensland 'Toyota' (!) Cowboys, and then to the 'iSelect' (!) Gold Coast Titans, and now has no problem using the pronouns 'we' and 'us' to refer to 'his' team, despite residing in the Illawarra. Isn't it all rather arbitrary?

'The Isotopes are winning? To the bandwagon!'

This is less applicable, I suppose, in international sports, where teams actually comprise nationals of the countries they represent, but even here Dad and I have a shared tendency to experience moments of almost Brechtian alienation, wherein the viewing experience is transcended by a sudden and profound awareness of the insignificance and absurdity of investing ourselves in such a pointless activity, a kind of 'opiate of the massesstyle' reluctance to be diverted by an exercise in corporatised nationalism, the outcome of which will ultimately have no impact on our lives.

One such moment occurred for Dad last Friday night as we watched the match between Sam Stosur and Ana Ivanovic in Rod Laver Arena. 'What are we doing here?' he asked at one point, nudging me and laughing, a common effect of the incongruous jerk out of the immediacy of the experience and into comprehension of its ludicrousness. 'Why do we care? Does it pay my mortgage if Stosur wins tonight?'

Although I generally disapprove of any form of slavish utilitarianism ('I AM A CAPITALIST DRONE; EVERY ACTIVITY IN WHICH I ENGAGE MUST PROVIDE ME WITH SOME DIRECT, CONCRETE, PREFERABLY MONETARY BENEFIT'), and I harbour a vague inclination that sport fulfills some subtle but important purpose* in our society, I still find these to be compelling questions. Why do we care so much whether one entity beats another entity in an otherwise entirely useless endeavour?

'Oh my God, Marge. A penalty shot with only four seconds left. It's your child versus mine! The winner will be showered with praise; the loser will be taunted and booed until my throat is sore!'

*I know, I know, it's about an outlet for primal aggression, social rituals and cohesion, blah blah.

In this instance, however, I couldn't fully share in Dad's characteristic momentary bewilderment. For reasons not entirely clear to me, tennis exempts itself from my usual spectatorial reticence, especially once a year for the term of the Australian Open when, time permitting, I become a rabid tennis fan. A were-fan, if you will. I look up rankings, download apps, text friends about matches, and follow every game I can.

I'm aware that, if anything, the 'pointlessness' of sport is exaggerated in tennis, where the match is confined to 260 square metres and the task can essentially be decocted to 'get the ball over the net and within the lines', but perhaps it's that there's something more honest about it as an individual pursuit that allows it to evade my cynicism. These aren't footballers professing some kind of loyalty to their team before scarpering off to the highest bidder the moment their contract is up, particular personalities subsumed into the larger team identity. They're individuals playing for themselves whose characters are on display to earn your support or opposition.

When I examine my list of favourite players and try to determine why I like them, however, it's still decidedly arbitrary, just slightly less so. With hundreds of individuals to choose from, you end up being quite superficial – one bad impression can be enough to turn you off someone. For me it seems to come down to a complex subconscious calibration of a player's skill, grace, manner, sense of humour, eloquence, nationality and, as I'm becoming increasingly aware when it comes to women (to my dismay), appearance. Which is my tortuous, Simpsons-like way of getting to the point that I've been thinking about how we pick which players to support in tennis, and who gets attention for what, and particularly how the criteria differ for men and women. 

Even as perhaps one of the women's sports deemed most 'watchable' by men, the tennis court is a fraught field for gender issues, dominated for years by 'pin-ups' like Kournikova, Sharapova and Ivanovic and throwing up perennial debates over prize money, air time and the comparative quality and entertainment value of the men's and women's games. What brought the issue of player popularity to mind for me, however, was watching the match between Australian Casey Dellacqua and rising Canadian star Eugenie Bouchard last night. 

Whether it's the men's or women's game, one truth universally acknowledged in tennis is the vapidity of the commentary. Tennis commentators seem to struggle to find anything much of value to add. One example from last night's match was Sam Smith's observation that Dellacqua had been eating a bread roll before the match, from which she extrapolated two things: one, that Casey hadn't had much dinner, and two, that she was nervous. Compelling stuff.

Is it any surprise then that we find traces of sexism in the inanities spouted by commentators in their furious verbal attempts to justify their relevance? Not conscious sexism, but the more insidious kind that infects the way even decent people think on a basic level. It's like what I was discussing in my last post (a thousand years ago) regarding Tony Abbott and his 'sex appeal' blunder: when the mind casts around for something to latch onto, something to say, the things it finds can be revealing, a window into a person's way of seeing the world and, therefore, the otherwise invisible ideology that shapes their worldview. It's problematic as it is that female commentators are never assigned a men's match while at least one man is always present in the commentary box for a women's match, but watching last night I became aware that the idle chatter of the commentators differs greatly depending on the gender of the players and the way they look.

As I type I'm watching Smith interview Dominika Cibulkova. Despite having just achieved the considerable feat of vanquishing world number three Maria Sharapova, the Slovak is being quizzed about her relationship status, how long she's been engaged, and her engagement ring. WHAT IS THIS?

It's astounding how much time is spent discussing looks in the women's game, even if it's obliquely, euphemistically. At one point, as I pointed out on Twitter, it was stated that Dellacqua was 'more girl-next-door than the girl next door', which can be translated to mean she is homely and unglamourous. This was underscored by Smith's statement only moments later that Dellacqua's opponent Bouchard is 'the heir to Sharapova in marketing terms', a euphemism for 'she's the hottest, blondest, whitest young player on the circuit.'

Bouchard (left) and Dellacqua (right).

Later Smith's obligatory male 'supervisor' (whose name I'm unsure of) joked that most of Bouchard's supporters, referred to by her as the 'Eugenie Army', seemed to be young men. After Bouchard had won, Renae Stubbs momentarily puzzled her in her post-match interview by saying she was sure her supporters were all about ready to propose to her.

And discussing the match Bouchard's win had set up for her with Ivanovic, the male commentator referred to Ivanovic as one of the 'all time great poster girls', as if she were a model rather than a tennis player, notable for her beauty rather than her skill. In response Smith asked 'How are you going to market it? The beauty of Belgrade versus the princess of Quebec?' and remarked that the pair were two very 'marketable' young girls.

Contrast this with the commentary on a comparable male player, Vasek Pospisil, who defeated Australia's Matt Ebden last Wednesday night. Pospisil and Bouchard are both attractive, white, blonde, young (23 and 19 respectively) Canadians with similar singles rankings (30 and 28) who triumphed over Australians. Yet not once did the appearance of Bouchard's countryman attract any commentary: no mention even of his adoring female fans, no talk of the impending match up between the 'Canadian catch' Pospisil and 'Swiss stud' Wawrinka.

Canadian heartthrob Vasek Pospisil.

Again, it's not that these commentators are bad people, it's that they've been conditioned by the prevailing ideology of the day to automatically view and assess women in terms of their appearance more than they do with men. The only way to wake people out of this ideology is to call it out when we see it, and we see it everywhere.

When the vacuous woman sitting next to me at the Stosur–Ivanovic match breezed into the arena four games into the first set, her first question to her companion was 'Who's that'?

'Ana Ivanovic', he answered.

'Ooh, she's really pretty', she cooed.

Moments later when Stosur appeared on the screen she laughed that the world number 17 looked 'like a man'. Former world number one Amélie Mauresmo was the target of similar criticism. In a habit that I'm sure would chasten her if I brought it up now, my best friend in high school would periodically proclaim with some vehemence her 'hatred' for Mauresmo. The reason? 'She looks like a man!' 

Stosur (left) and Mauresmo (right)

As well as being too muscular or masculine, female tennis players can be too fat. When Dellacqua made her return to the Australian Open in 2009, she drew criticism from, among others, Roger Rasheed for being out of shape, a claim she and her trainers strongly repudiated. But that incident pales in comparison to the disgusting public reaction to Marion Bartoli's 2013 Wimbledon win, best summarised by the tweets collected in an article by Amanda Chatel.

Bartoli (left) and Dellacqua (right)

It's not enough, it seems, for a woman to be among the best tennis players in the world. She must also be born buxom and beautiful and maintain a slim, feminine figure.

It's not even safe in the sidelines. Lleyton Hewitt's wife Bec (nee Cartwright) was recently the target of an article by the ever-atrocious Daily Mail and others asking whether she'd 'overdone it on the tan'.

I'd say she looks completely fine …

On the other hand, 'Aussie Ana' Ivanovic (a Serb) has been claimed for Australia by Todd Woodbridge, and every commentator to have taken up the moniker since 2008 when she won the Australian Open, due to her overwhelming popularity in Australia. In a poll yesterday asking who was expected to win the tournament after Williams' departure that Sam Smith joked could've been rephrased as 'Who is your favourite female player?', popular Chinese player Li Na, number three seed Sharapova and the defending champion Azarenka each received circa 20% of the vote, while Ivanovic was assigned double that at approximately 40%. But what can Ivanovic possibly have done to earn this popularity, other than being young and beautiful? Can anyone honestly contend she has twice the personality of Li Na, twice the skill of Azarenka?

I myself am not immune to Ivanovic's charms, nor to subtle sexism. There's no doubt she's attractive; she's actually pretty much exactly my type. But that's separate to her skill as a tennis player. It doesn't have to be her defining attribute. It shouldn't be mentioned by commentators every time she's on court. And players who don't have her looks shouldn't suffer in popularity, or worse, be lambasted for it. A cursory consideration of the list of my other favourite female players doesn't seem to reveal that I favoured them especially for their looks: Elena Dementieva, Justine Henin, Li Na, Ai Sugiyama. In fact, if anything, I hold a strange contempt for the bevy of attractive young interchangeable, quadrisyllabically named female players who've come to my attention over the last couple years: Caroline Wozniacki, Danielá Hantuchova, Vera Zvonareva, Victoria Azarenka.

Female favourites (left to right): Dementieva, Henin, Li, Sugiyama.

Un-favourites (left to right): Wozniacki, Hantuchova, Zvonareva, Azarenka.

But then, on closer consideration, I think sexism might come into it at some level. Is my dismissal of this second group just another form of sexism? Do I think they're too pretty to be good players, to be memorable, to have personality? And even though my favourites aren't women I find especially attractive, they are all undoubtedly beautiful women, slender and graceful. There's no women among my favourites who are unattractive. Why is that?

And what about who's missing from my list? Notably absent is Serena Williams, though I can safely assign her exclusion to other factors than her looks. I do admire her skill in the game, but her ineloquence, her obnoxious, particularly American fervent Christianity, forever thanking God for her wins in her stumbling, graceless acceptance speeches, as though he has specifically chosen her, puts me off. But why not Clijsters? Why not Bartoli? If their slightly rounder features and thicker bodies were swapped for the slight frames of Dementieva and Henin, can I really pretend my preferences would be the same? 

Lately I'm becoming increasingly alarmed about our society's attitudes towards physical appearances. We may try to hide it by using terms like 'marketable', but that only puts the problem at one further remove; what is marketable is determined by what people want, and what people want is to see attractive people and to judge ugly people, people they can safely designate 'uglier than me'. Ugliness now is treated like a fault, like something we have any power over. And deviating from the standard body form long ago became a crime worthy of opprobrium. 

Recently I've had a number of windows into the world of acting and theatre, and have been disappointed to learn that even respectable institutions are primarily concerned with the 'marketability' of their auditionees, that it's 'unheard of' for people of certain looks and body shapes to be given places, regardless of acting talent. Meanwhile, inexperienced eighteen-year-olds who happen to have been born with 'the look' are raised up out of the masses clamouring for a place without any need to distinguish themselves theatrically.

And it's not just women. My sisters recently informed me that all their male friends are on steroids or growth hormones of some form or another. Normal, healthy-looking sixteen-year-olds dosing themselves with drugs to turn themselves into miniature 'Zyzz' effigies in under six months, the better to worship at the altar of the self in the temple of the gym.

I always knew we lived in a superficial world, but somehow I still believed that everyone knew that it was wrong. I thought everyone had learned in their childhood from fairy tales and cartoons that it was what was on the inside that counts, and not to judge a book by its cover and that, even if they still did so, they knew somewhere that it wasn't the right thing to do. But all I've seen lately is unabashed superficiality. It's why reality TV is still so popular – it's cheap hour after hour of unadulterated judgement, and we love to sit in judgement of one another. 'What is she wearing?' 'She's too ugly to be the next top model.' 'Why would he pick that song?' 'He looks gay in that.' 'How can they be so stupid?' 'I hope he gets voted out, he's annoying.'

If there's one cause for hope for me in the tennis world, it's Li Na. I was there for the 2013 women's final when Li faced Azarenka. From my friends who watched at home I've heard it was considered a boring match, but for those in the arena it was electric. Fresh from the controversy of the previous round where it was speculated Azarenka had taken a medical timeout purely to throw her winning opponent Sloane Stephens off rhythm, the crowd was entirely behind Li Na, to the point that Azarenka's winners were met with mere polite applause while her unforced errors, usually awkward to applaud, were met with impassioned cheers, and Li's two on-court collapses elicited immediate heart-wrenching sympathy. The fact that an Asian woman who speaks only broken English can through her charm, sense of humour and fighting spirit win over a public as racist as Australia's gives me hope where little else does.

Thanks for reading,



  1. I love this piece. It was one of the first ones that came up when I typed in 'tennis, sexism, Australian Open'. I love that is it is written by a man, and you said what I wanted to say, except better. Bravo.

  2. Thank you very much, Lucy. I'm glad someone appreciated it!

    1. I just love you. The end.

    2. These are things that I have always noticed and hated, but never known how to put into words. I will now share this with the world!

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